Last updated on February 11, 2020
Hugging the ice-cold bubble tea to my chest, I continued wandering up and down the streets, looking for any sense of normalcy. The bubble tea lady was so smiley and friendly just moments ago … but she didn’t speak a lick of English. And I was confused. Overwhelmed. I was profoundly lost in a way I rarely experience after so long traveling the world.
As I walked among the tall city buildings, I passed surprisingly few other people. I kept a clear mental map in my head of where I was in relation to the huge main bus and metro terminal just two blocks to the right and one street behind me.
I was lost enough that I considered bailing on my long layover in Taipei.
I can just go back to the airport … there’s no shame in going back to the airport. It’s only a 15 hour layover. What else can I do? I don’t know where I am. The metro is confusing. No one speaks English. NO ONE. What was I thinking?! Landing here without even a map.
Crap. Crap. Crapcrapcrapcrapcrapcrapcrap crap.
Anxiety had rooted deep inside me. I could feel little pieces of fear bubbling up to the surface.
I was hungry and so very, very tired.
And a little scared even though I wasn’t in danger, which made me all the more confused.
I hadn’t spoken English to someone who comprehended it in hours.
I couldn’t even see a café or restaurant. Just a bizarrely commercial area with all of the shop fronts still locked up tightly closed; the lettering on the windows a bizarre pattern of incomprehensible lines and squiggles.
I was too overwhelmed to even start the pity tears, instead continuing my confused and aimless wandering.
Until I saw it.
Shining like a beacon of recognition I gave no thought to ditching my bubble tea in a nearby trash can as I all but fell over myself in my haste to suck in a hasty breath of the rich and warm aroma of roasting coffee that hits you the moment you pull open the door to a Starbucks anywhere in the world. The décor and interior looked like a standard issue Starbucks, and the ringing greeting of a “Hello, how are you?” nearly brought tears to my eyes.
Oh thank god, I thought. Thank god, thank god, thank god.
Arriving to Taipei Jetlagged
I floated through Taipei customs without a hitch—I had a ticket out of there in a mere 15 hours time, so the customs agent had no issue stamping me into Taiwan with a temporary entry visa.
It was 6:15am and eerily silent in the airport. At a stretch, I’d say five other people were wandering through the baggage claim area of the airport. Clutched in my fist was a ragged strip of paper with my scribbled instructions to myself: Take the bus to the main train station terminal in the center of Taipei and from there all of the major sites were easily accessible by metro.
Easy-peasy, I had thought to myself.
First task in any new country? Money. Thankfully ATMs look pretty similar anywhere you go, so I made a wild guess on the exchange rate since the deluge of rain pouring down from the sky in Bali the previous night took out the power and thus my internet researching skills.
The bus ticketing window was blessedly easy to find and the signage was in English, so I pointed to the ticket I wanted then proffered my fist full of money, letting the woman take the coins she needed to pay my fare.
An hour later, we were driving through the tall city buildings of Taipei when the bus driver pointed at me and then pointed at the door. He spoke not a word spoken, but it was clearly my cue to get off.
The sprawling building in front of me was a maze of business people rushing in and out of the metro terminal. I took a moment to drink in the huge TV screens filled with incomprehensible information. There was no information stand in sight. Overwhelmed, I turned quickly and headed into the city in search of food, wandering the streets until I found a friendly face hanging out from a window in the side of a building—surrounding her were photos of dozens of different tea combinations.
I pointed to something simple and again offered a handful of change—a few coins taken from my palm and in exchange I had a cold bubble tea in clenched between my fingers; a handy prop for myself as I continued my search for food.
20 Minutes Later, Cozy in a Starbucks
The coffee and blueberry muffin—such a painfully western breakfast—calmed me immensely as I pondered my options. The food began to hit my system and the panic subsided; it even seemed foolish now in the brightly lit and comfortable Starbucks.
I whipped out my laptop and found a wifi connection. Between the ability to now scour the internet for information (and Gchat with my dad) and the English-speaking Starbucks barista, my confidence had returned (do you think they have to speak some English to get hired at Starbucks?).
And it hit me right then that I had just experienced a lovely little punch in the face of culture shock. Coupled with low blood sugar, the completely overwhelming new culture had me in a state of absolute and debilitating confusion.
But food and familiar comforts brought me back to a state of sanity. Instead of wanting to hightail it back to the airport, I wrote down the metro stops for the three tasks my Taiwanese friend had recommended: visit Taipei 101, explore the Palace Museum, and find vegetarian street eats at the Shilin Night Market.
This research step was clearly something I should have done before I landed in Taipei for a 15 hour layover. Normally when I land in a new major city, I have plotted out transportation from the airport and my first night’s accommodation. But without a guesthouse and a home base, I had literally landed in Taipei with no more than instructions to get into the city and the name of three activities and sights.
In some places that would have worked, but not Taipei. I had arrogantly assumed I would simply locate an English speaker and ask for directions. I had done this with success in many other cities in the world. But what happens when there isn’t a single soul in sight who speaks a common language?
Once I wrote down the name of the stops and the color of the subway lines I needed, I was back into familiar territory.
The culture shock was passing.
I had done all of this before.
A metro system is a metro system, and Taipei metro and bus network is actually awesome once you’re armed with more information.
I’ve been on the road for years now, and I didn’t see the culture shock coming. As a long-term traveler, I ask my mind to constantly adapt rapidly to a lot of new situations. And as a solo traveler there’s an added element because there’s no one to help sort the information or watch my bags while I go investigate something—no one to communicate with just for the mere comfort of being understood.
This was my mind’s way of telling me: slow down, don’t get cocky. There’s no shame in advanced planning to smooth over the first days (hours) in an entirely new country. I don’t have to prove I’m superwoman by landing in a new country and magically knowing everything. This is, at the core, what that Taipei Starbucks taught me. Even when you think you have it all figured out, it pays to stay humble and bring a learners mindset to the world around you.